A lean tool won’t make you a lean thinker any more than a paintbrush or a sax will make you Rembrandt or John Coltrane.  

Two things happen every time a tool emerges from the depths of the lean community into mainstream use. First, the practice of lean gets stronger as organizations become more capable and make new improvements. Second, the new practices become misunderstood and misused, leading to new frustration and waste. For example, using 5S to clean people’s desks and value stream mapping to increase inventory buffers.

One example of a tool that has been around the lean community for years, and recently become mainstream, is A3. An A3 is simply a way to present a report in a simple and structured way. Some call it A3 thinking but to be clear, there is no such thing as A3 thinking-there is only lean thinking. A3 reports are simply a waste-free way for report writing and communication. The important point is that the basic building blocks of an A3 report provide a nice little template for lean thinking. So this tool can be helpful to anyone who wants to learn and apply lean thinking.

There is no single “right” format, but in general an A3 report flows from a problem statement or gap description, to current reality analysis, description of the target condition, and finally the plan and measurements to evaluate progress and validity. The format itself isn’t important-it won’t magically turn you into a lean thinker any more than picking up a paintbrush or a sax will magically turn you into another Rembrandt or John Coltrane. It is going through the work of developing an A3 report for your situation that starts you on the path to becoming a lean thinker.

It is essential to begin with the problem statement, because it is a critical element on the path to lean thinking. There are few things both more fundamental-and more frequently done poorly-than the problem statement. How you structure the problem statement determines your focus. Make sure your problem statement is actually about the current observable condition, not about a perceived solution, cause or what you want.

Before you jump to reactive solutions, it is essential to deeply understand the current reality. This is not a sit-down exercise, it is an activity. Go observe what is actually happening. You want the as-is, not the supposed-to-be or the my-belief-is version of reality.

Before you start throwing Band-Aids at the problem, you should first develop a clear target condition-the goal of where you want to be. This is not the result you would achieve, this is how you will change the work in order to get the result. You don’t want to just uncover solutions to problems, you want to design the work to create a new and better reality. Bad systems beat good people, and your job is to change the system.

As you work on any A3 project or problem, work in pencil. Two things happen when you work in pencil. First, you are much more likely to draw pictures that capture the system view-which is what you want-than just the results view. Second, you are more able to backtrack as you learn. At least half of your problem statements should-and will-change based on what you learn going through the process.

Learn how to use A3 to help you understand and change the thinking of the organization; don’t just grab it as “the next lean tool du jour.” It isn’t A3 itself that changes anyone’s thinking. But you cannot change what you cannot see, and it is through using A3 that your thinking is brought out in the open for close inspection. As a tool, it can help clarify the lean thinking you are applying to your lean journey.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. He shares his successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as a practitioner and leader through companies such as Chrysler and DTE Energy. He also has a wide range of practical experience in industrial operations, including production, maintenance, material control, product development and manufacturing engineering. Jamie is a graduate fellow of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research thesis was on implementing lean manufacturing through factory design. He also holds a B.S. in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and an M.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site www.leanlearningcenter.com.